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

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Quick HORROR tip: make it LIGHT and REALISTIC

After so many posts about "dark fantasy" games, talking about "light realistic" games might sounds strange... but might be appropriate.

In order to have a "scary" horror game, realism could be a good choice - otherwise, the players might fall back to fantasy tropes of peasants slaying giants. 

In the horror genre, there could be a single foe - say, a guy with an axe - and if he gets you, you're probably dead.

It happened to me in one D&D game. I describe a monstrous entity and the fighter said "I attack". I said, "well, it is the size of a bus...", he attacked anyway, dealt 8 damage or whatever, and got ignored by the entity. 

His actions were not absurd in a game where you're supposed to fight dragons.

"Light" rules are important too. If the rules are complex enough that make you study the character sheet for solutions, you disengage from the "fictional" and therefore lose any "scare value" that you could get from it - as described in the example above. The players was thinking "attack bonus" instead of "giant-sized flying worm".

In an horror game, you should spend significant amounts of time engaging with the fictional world - building tension, describing clues, etc.

I remember one CoC game that got my players scared by simply describing an empty room with some green ooze under the bed.

At this point, "I roll perception" could ruin the mood.

But if you need this "roll perception" stuff, the system should be quick and deadly about it.
Unknown Armies has the right idea about this - PC skills are often around 20% to 40%. They are unreliable and fail more often than not. Combat (especially with guns) is extremely swingy - you can die with a single shot OR after more than a dozen stab wounds.

[It does have a complex and interesting system for mental trauma, however. For short games, this isn't even necessary - you don't have to check if you're scared, you should know a dagger is extremely dangerous].

Cthulhu Dark took simple, deadly rules to the extreme: fight a monster and you die, period. Too extreme for my tastes, but adequate to some kinds of horror.

There are other forms of horror, of course - you could have all kinds of adventures in hellish landscapes, dream worlds, or full of powerful but flawed heroes struggling against inner demons or cosmic entities. The protagonists could be fighting trauma, madness, addiction or poverty instead of monsters. 

But these two guidelines seem adequate for, say, 80% of any "best horror movies" list.


If you're looking for good horror games, I've good experiences with Unknown Armies, Kult and, of course, CoC (I haven't tried the current versions, only old ones).

But, come to think of it, old school D&D might work too, especially if the PCs have no armor, few weapons and few ways to level up (e.g., a one-shot set in modern days). 

A 1st level fighter with 3-4 HP can do little against half a dozen zombies, except maybe run. If the PCs are stuck in a house with a 4 HD monster - or even maniac with an axe trying to get them by surprise - their chances are slim.

The PCs saving throws often fail and, if the adventure last for more than one day, they recover only 1d3 HP.

Stronger monsters (e.g., vampires) are unbeatable unless you find their weaknesses.

[There is more to be said about using FEWER monsters, BTW - something I addressed recently here and here]

Giving a very bad THAC0 to everyone (including monsters) might be a good way to ramp up the tension. 

Combat lasts for a few rolls, but every single one might mean death.

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Saturday, October 28, 2023

Skeleton with a bow

I was playing Castlevania and thinking of fun encounters. It got me thinking...

A skeleton in B/X is a 1 HD monster, maybe with 4-5 HP - relatively weak, unless you find half a dozen at once (which is likely).

But picture a skeleton with a bow in a place you cannot access easily - a tower, castle wall, or behind a chasm or river. Maybe you could climb it in, say, three rounds, less if you're a thief.

Now let's give him some resistance to arrows, since it has no flesh or organs. Maybe arrows do 1 point of damage to it at most (or half damage if you don't want to be mean to archers).

And put him in armor. To evil wizards, they are better than mercenaries, since they require no food, sleep, pay, or overtime. No morale checks either.

He is now a bit of a challenge to a group of first-level PCs by himself.

You could use turn undead if you have a cleric. That is, if there is no range/area limit.

But throw a robe over the skeleton and maybe the PCs are not even sure what they're dealing with - until they get close!

Now put ten skeletons with robes and armor over the wall an this becomes a challenge to a level 5 party. We don't even need to raise HP. 

A fireball might explode one of them - they are scattered. Charm, hold person, sleep, etc., are all useless here.

Arrows are of limited use, but slings and magic missiles get a chance to shine (even if a longbow has slightly better reach). The thief gets to use his climbing skills in an action scene - maybe even moving silently in the process while his allies take cover.

Come to think of it, is it fair that the skeletons can "see" the PCs? Well they are probably programmed to shoot at anyone who comes near the castle or try to cross a bridge.

If they run out of arrows - they probably only have a few - they might climb down the walls (sounds reasonable but the armor might make things difficult; some may fall and be destroyed in the process, which is a cool scene by itself).

And when the PCs find out what is happening, then the evil wizard unleashes the Bone Golem, to see all the usual tactics (turn undead, fireball and lighting bolts) fail spectacularly.

Sounds like a fun game to me!

Thursday, October 26, 2023

You can't solve B/X skills and checks (same goes for AD&D etc.)... and ONE MORE FIX

I've been working on a minimalist D&D for ages. 

B/X checks are a bit messy, as we discussed many times before; they could be vastly simplified.

For example: by RAW, a thief usually has better chances climbing sheer walls than climbing a rope (and uses two completely different systems), while the Halfling uses two different systems to hide (90% in the wilderness, 2-in-6 otherwise).

In total, there are at least six different systems:

- D20 roll high (attacks, saves).
- D20 roll low (ability checks).
- X-in-6 chances (foraging, getting lost, etc.).
- 2d6 roll high (reaction).
- 2d6 roll low (morale).
- Percentages.

If you consider wether the roll is affected by your abilities, level, both or none, the situation gets even more complicated:

I'm still ignoring things such as damage, surprise, initiative, 10% chance of arcane error for thieves, 90% chance of drowning, etc.

I tried to fix that more than half a dozen times in this blog.

But, ultimately, the problem becomes obvious: you cannot fix this because the fix is entirely dependent on matters of personal taste.

To put some order into it, you'd have to decide:

- Does it need any more order than that? Should the mechanics be more unified than that?

If the answer is positive, you'd have to choose:

- Do you prefer 1d6, 2d6, 1d20 or 1d100?
- Do you prefer roll high or low?
- Should your chances improve with a high ability score?
- Should your chances improve with a high level?

Assuming you can make a decision for each of these circumstances, you'd get at least thirty possible answers - none strictly better than the other, since 1d20 is no better than 1d6 or 1d100 and roll high/low each have their defenders.

[Each has its benefits, however; I find "30% chance" extremely intuitive, for example, and "rolling a natural 20" a fun thing to have in the game].

Now, if the answer is negative - i.e., if you're willing to accept the mess - things get even more complicated. 

Because - unless you accepted "because the book said so" as your only criteria, you'd have to ask yourself:

- Should you level affect your chances of foraging? 
- Should you Dex affect move silently?
- Should thieves have an easier time climbing a rope?
Et cetera ad nauseam.

Now you don't have thirty answers - you have thirty answers for each check.

And I haven't even started talking about quantity

- How hard should the checks be? 
- Should there be different "DCs"?
- How much should your level affect this?
- What about your abilities? 
- Should level matter more than ability or vice-versa? 
- Etc.

A 5e (Solomonic) solution

As a small aside, 5e solves this mostly by mentioning three types of rolls (attacks, saves, ability checks), but they all function in a roughly similar fashion: roll 1d20 + ability mod + proficiency.

Proficiency (defined by level) and ability mods have similar weights. 

(When I say "Solomonic" I do not mean "wise, but "cutting things in half".)

Sometimes proficiency doesn't apply, sometimes it is halved or doubled, so in the end a table would look somewhat better than B/X but not much simpler, and still need an external DC to function, which B/X usually doesn't.

A B/X (Solomonic) solution

Since there are no right answers, we can come up with our own. Target 20 is one of my favorites, but does not cover ability checks or 1d6 tasks explicitly. 

Here is one of mine.

- Do you prefer 1d6, 2d6, 1d20 or 1d100? 1d20.
- Do you prefer roll high or low? High.
- Should your chances improve with a high ability score? Yes.
- Should your chances improve with a high level? Yes.

Target 20 already covers attacks, saves and skills; we'd need a system for non-thief skills (1d6) and ability checks.

My suggestion:

Roll 1d20, add (ability+level)/2, Target 20.

To keep thief skills similar, just use:

Roll 1d20, add (ability/2)+level, Target 20.

E.g., Dex 14, level 8 means +15 to hide if you're a thief, +11 if you are not.

+11 seems a lot for a non-thief, but in the unlikely event you have a Dex 14 MU, it gives the sneaky bastard lots of personality!

If you prefer to ignore levels for non-thieves, I think this method (1d20+ability/2) is still better than simple ability checks as it makes things a bit harder (and closer to the usual 1-in-6 chances for general tasks). Or, to add more complexity, you only get to add half level if the task is somehow related to your class. But I'm not sure this is even necessary.

One side effect I enjoy is that every point matters - Dex 10 is different from Dex 11 at least half the time.

Similar methods have been used in "Action Throws" and BFRPG optional rules ("Ability Rolls"). 

Well, TBH I might have mentioned something similar in this blog before; I'm sorry to repeat myself, this seems to be an unsolvable matter indeed... but at least we gave it a shot! 

Recommended reading:

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

What is the minimum viable D&D?

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

So, the "minimum viable D&D" is a form of D&D that includes every mechanic D&D to play a D&D game, and little else. In theory, you could play a D&D module using Risus and a few d6, but that is not what I'm talking about. What I'm trying to identify is the very essence of D&D - things that must be included in the core books of every edition to give you a D&D feel. Things that people came to expect from D&D. For example:

- Six ability scores.
- Three or four races.
- Three or four classes.
- Saving throws.
- AC and HP.
- XP and levels.
- Spells.
- Encumbrance.
- Equipment, including multiple weapons with differences.
- Treasure, including magic items.
- Rules for combat, interaction (reaction, morale, languages, etc.), dungeon exploration, and wilderness exploration.
- Monsters and HD.

Another thing to consider is how these things relate to one another. For example, your ability scores and your class affect your HP and saving throws. Let's call them "ties"; there are direct ties between abilities and AC. A mechanic that is tied to no other mechanic can be called "untied".

This is the PHB stuff. You also need monsters, GM advice, etc. I'll focus on PHB stuff that allows you to play existing OSR adventures.

Notice that there are some parts in B/X that I think are NOT strictly needed. They are add-ons to the essential parts. For example:

- Multiple specific saving throws.
- Multiple XP tables.
- Spell slots.

Let's tackle these and other issues to see what else is MVD&D.

This is how AI sees D&D covers.

Ability scores

It is certainly possible to play D&D without them (see The Searchers of the Unknown RPG). Conversely, you could play using mostly ability scores with the exclusion of other aspects (see Knave, The Black Hack, etc.).

However, they have been in every edition, and I think they are now part of the D&D experience.


Thieves fall into a gray area. Their skills are deeply tied to the dungeon setting, but they are mostly add-ons, with the exception of hear noise and find trap (that create a connection between class and those actives... that would otherwise be affected by race). Open locks is not necessary since other ways to deal with doors (force doors, knock) already exist. Move silently and hide in shadow do not tie directly to existing mechanics such as surprise. Etc.

Overall, I think thieves are MVD&D at least in feel. They've been in every edition since Holmes. Notice that thief and paladin were officially born simultaneously in OD&D Supplement I: Greyhawk (0e), but the paladin is somewhat of an hybrid class, while the thief is very much its own thing.

Skills (and rangers)

Non-thief skills are not strictly necessary either. However, they are immensely useful to tie existing mechanics. 

For example, in B/X, there are rules for hunting and foraging, but no way to be better at either. Same for surprise and initiative, which become "missing ties" if there is no other mechanic to interact with them.

You could add this missing ties by allowing your Wisdom bonus to affect some of these rolls, for example, without needing skills. Skills are there to make these things a lot easier, IMO.

At minimum, we'd have thief skills, plus maybe nature and persuasion (to affect hirelings, morale, reactions, etc.) - and also make a decent/obvious tie between these three things:

- Hide/move silently.
- Surprise.
- Backstab.

And, if we are looking for the minimum, one single skill mechanic (percentages, x-in-6, 1d20, etc.) will suffice.

Clerics and paladins

These are hybrid classes; fighters that cast spells, especially for the paladin. There is also turn undead, which is a curious thing. Some undead are usually not tied to morale rules, making them especially dangerous. So, this might be a nice addition, but definitely an add-on.

There is a good case to be made for the cleric, but also against it. Overall, I'd say it gets the MVD&D status for being in every edition. Not so for the paladin.

Bards and other classes

I feel that a class that is especially adept at social interaction (the "face" of the party) would be useful, although Charisma can play that part independently. The thing is, the cleric is not necessarily filling this niche either - instead, it becomes a mix of thief, MU, and sometimes fighter. I am not a fan of the bard in general and I think a warlord would be more appropriate - with ties to morale, loyalty, hirelings, etc. 

Likewise, I don't find druids, barbarians, and monks strictly necessary either. They are cool, but not the minimum. Every B/X player is doing fine without them.

Multiple specific saving throws

Every edition has multiple saving throws, but they work differently. You have the original categories (wands, spells, death, etc.), the 3e/4e division (reflex/fortitude/will), the 5e model (tied to each ability score), etc. 

You must have saving throws, but which saves are a matter of choice. 

Again, since we are looking for the minimum, one single save will suffice.

I'll admit having Mind/Body STs is incredibly alluring to me for some reason.

Multiple XP tables

You could have a D&D game without XP - I'm playing such a campaign right now - but XP is in every edition and has ties to class, level, treasure, etc. Part of the minimum, IMO. And, again, there is no reason to have more than one table if we are looking for the minimum.

Spell slots

This is a curious mechanic that doesn't really interact with ability scores (except that in some versions you get more slots). 

I'd say that spells are very much mandatory in D&D, but spell slots are not (4e didn't have them IIRC; 3e and 5e has optional spell points and other methods).

You could tie them to existing mechanics (such as saving throws or hit points) instead.

That might be a personal preference - see below.

Different Hit Dice

I used to dislike different HD because I thought it was somewhat redundant with Constitution. Now, I'm a bit on the fence - the fighter has few features and we should be very careful when taking them away. In any case, HD is needed, even if all classes have the same HD (and some have more HP due to Constitution).

In addition, I really like giving bigger hit dice to big monsters (such as giants etc.), which is something common in modern D&D and even considered by Gygax IIRC (if he had been responsible for 2e).

In conclusion....

As you know, Dark Fantasy Basic was my first attempt at re-writing B/X to my liking. I'm still playing it with a few modifications (currently running a sandbox campaign). But DFB is not exactly minimalist. It contains lots stuff that I find cool and not strictly necessary. 

I might write a minimalist D&D one day - the beta version is here. This is only half-baked ATM; I'm having a hard time choosing a single mechanic for combat, spells and skills. 

Spells are the main problem, since everything else can use Target 20

And I haven't been a fan of Vancian casting for a while - I especially dislike spell level that do not correspond with character level!

But I'm very close to simply ignoring the existing spell system and creating something entirely new (and NOT necessarily compatible, unlike my earlier attempts) - maybe DCC-based, and much simpler than spell levels, slots, etc. 

Stay tuned for that!

Monday, October 23, 2023

Teratogenicon is the DEAL OF THE DAY - 50% off!

Dear friends,

Teratogenicon, our most impressive book, is the DEAL OF THE DAY on DTRPG. - 50% off!

The books is a collection of tables and essays on how to create your own monsters.

It contains one chapter for each of the fourteen most famous monster types (aberrations, beasts, celestials, constructs, and so on). Each chapter examines specific habits, appearance, goals, traits, powers, origins, and many other topics.

In addition, the appendixes will help you to create stats (for both old school and contemporary games), to roleplay monsters, and to include all monster types into a coherent whole, among other things.

If you haven't got it yet, this is your chance. It is compatible both with OSR and modern RPGs. 

If you buy it - or if you already got it - you can also buy my "everything bundle" for a discounted price, after you buy Teratogenicon.

Just check the previews to see if it piques your interest!

And please share, like, upvote and retweet if you can!

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

In a small outburst of nostalgia,  I have spent most of my day playing Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (SotN).

Seems like a good topic for All Hallows' Eve month...

In the unlikely possibility that you don't know this game, "Symphony of the Night is considered one of the greatest and most influential video games ever made". 

You can get it in PS4 and probably other platforms - the graphics and mechanics might be a bit outdated compared to modern games, but I still had fun with it today.

It has several similarities to other stuff we discussed in this blog -  mostly Ravenloft and Dark Souls.

Cool monsters, gothic vistas, limited items, non-linear maps, living furniture... all the fun stuff. 

There are also a few ideas that would be fun addition to my games...

Playing with different characters/weapons

SotN starts with a boss battle that takes place a few years before the beginning of the actual plot - a repetition of the last fight of the previous game. You play with a different character (different weapons and all) against the main villain! 

This is a battle you cannot lose due to a little help from an ally, but it foreshadows things you'll see later on (also, you can get several perks if you defeat the monster without help).

[Notice that the first character you play is an heir to the Belmont clan - the heroes of previous installments - so there is a continuity here too].

Then you get to play with Alucard (Dracula's son, also introduced as a "supporting character" in a  previous game). 

The game is very easy at first - enemies barely hurt you, and one hit of your heirloom sword is enough to destroy them. And right after that... you get all your equipment stolen!

Eventually, you can play with other characters - an aspect that I always enjoyed in Castlevania games.

Most D&D games go "from zero to hero", making you progressively more powerful (sometimes, to redundantly give you more powerful enemies). 

Allowing you to play with different PCs (or a completely different arsenal) might give you a nice taste of things to come... as suggested in the DMG.

Limited access to equipment

Like Dark Souls, the game gives you limited access to equipment at first (after you get your stuff stolen!). You can gather some money, but it will take a while until you can find someone that can sell you stuff.

This is an aspect of Cruse of Strahd I should have highlighted a bit more - there is treasure to be found, but not much to buy with it.

But in most D&D games you get so much money that you can get any ordinary weapon or armor by level 3 or before; after that, only magic weapons make a difference.

Making PCs suffer a bit for for their gear might make items more valuable and appreciated.

Monster variations

I might have mentioned this before, but I think monster variations are underused in D&D.

I used to like having hundreds of monsters, but it makes the world too random. That is why I focused on monster types when writing Teratogenicon.

You can make a much more coherent setting/dungeon using fewer monsters and many variations. A group of skeletons in chain, shooting bows from afar, are a different challenge from your usual skeleton mob - even if the stats are similar.

A more interesting setup is pairs of different monsters, with different abilities - one of he first boss battles in SotN includes a flying demon carrying a skeleton creature (picture above), and later on you had to fight a minotaur and a werewolf at the same time.

Another variation is monster phases. When the skeleton-thing (above) loses his weapon, he attacks with his beak. Dracula will eventually transform into a big demon when wounded, etc.

If you want to use various monsters, at least give them a theme. Plant monsters, various types of undead, mutant/leader/boss versions of common monsters, etc.

Having a dungeon with adjacent rooms of skeletons, then goblins, then giant bats, with no explanation is baffling and irritating.

Revisiting places

One of the fun things about SotN is that after you "finish" the castle, you have to face it again... this time, upside down!

(This might be where I got the idea of suggesting The Wretched Hive can be turned upside down if you need an underground dungeon).

You get to see things (literally) from a different angle. Places that were unreachable are not available, and vice-versa. The challenges are new, yet familiar.

A similar thing happens when you can turn into a bat, mist, etc. - now you can get to places you had seen but couldn't reach.

In most D&D games there is not much to do with a dungeon after you "clear" it (except, maybe, for some mega dungeons). 

It might be fun to do the same with dungeons. They don't need to be turned upside down - they can be flooded, invaded by a different faction, remodeled, or changed by an earthquake. Maybe certain areas require high level spells to access - an unlockable door or unreachable platform.

Again, it is something I attempt in The Wretched Hive - some high-level areas are hard to reach without flying, a key, or specific spells, although most of the "main level" can be faced by beginning PCs. I also included some notes on repopulating/revisiting the dungeon, but they are brief.

(Needless to say, dungeons should also be non-linear and Jaquayed in many ways. BTW, Jennel Jaquays is going through severe illness ATM and needs help).

Recurring places, characters, names (Belmont), monsters... these things give coherence to the game, and I should probably use them more often.

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Thursday, October 19, 2023

The Pendragon campaign of my dreams

I don't remember playing The Great Pendragon Campaign

I played a few Pendragon campaigns decades ago, but I don't recall what they were about and I do not know if the Game Master used this book.

Anyway, this night I had a dream about a campaign which seemed to come from Pendragon or Game of Thrones (I ran a GoT campaign that ended horribly a few years ago).

I'll write the main ideas down so I don't forget... Adding some thoughts I had a while ago. If you know where I'm getting this from (maybe Pendragon, GoT, history or elsewhere), let me know in the comments!

[I'm sorry if you came here looking for an actual Pendragon campaign - I think it is a great system and setting but this is just a vague idea for now!]

I think this doesn't take place in Britain; I was thinking of a fantasy setting and not as island (when I woke up I though of Portugal and Spain).

However, using Britain or Westeros has a huge advantage: the players are familiar with some of the lands and characters.

Act I

The kingdom is a bit chaotic. The king is weak, but fortunately some of the local lords are strong enough to protect their lands. Still, there are bandits, barbarians (saxons/vikings/etc.) and robber barons to deal with. The PCs are low nobility at first, but with the turmoil they have significant chances of gaining glory and titles as many people perish in the struggles.

Maybe the kingdom is still to scattered and the roads are in a state of disrepair. Papers are not reliable enough to tell rightful owners from usurpers. And usurpers will occasionally be nicer to peasants! I imagine PCs going to abandoned castles and lands to put things in order as they can.

During this time, PCs must make allies and get to know all nobles. These alliances are not friendships, they are meaningful - PCs have brothers and sisters marrying NPCs (they could marry and have children in order to gain more titles, etc.). They might fight side by side with good and bad NPCs against obvious threats. 

There could be fun tournaments and banquets as things get better.

Ideally, players would occasionally play some scenes as the NPCs so they can understand their perspectives a little.

There are no obvious "sides" yet, but there are some guys that seem decent, others that seem to be pricks. 

Act II

The kingdom is pacified, the roads are repaired.

A new, strong king rises. I don't know how - maybe trough marriage, or by showing extreme valor against invaders. Eventually, the kingdom becomes divided, because the southern portion opposes the new king.

War is close - and the PCs allies are on both sides! The PCs themselves are right in the middle, and they must either choose a side or try to de-escalate the conflict somehow. Of course, they are those who are willing to fight regardless of consequences!

Again, there is no "right" versus "wrong". Both the king and the separatists have valid claims. Maybe lawyers should be consulted (and bribed, threatened, kidnapped, etc.). 

Maybe the PCs are older now, and there are young knights that want to take advantage of the turmoil as the PCs did in the past. They want their glory too, and they won't find it in peace!


An uneasy truce is achieved somehow. Just then, the (now unified) invaders take the opportunity to make an attack. People who were enemies a few minutes ago must now unite or perish. Some will side with the enemy.

This is not about glory or even land anymore - it is about survival. The PCs are probably older now and will not "level up" anymore - on the contrary, they suffer the effects of aging, maybe death (so they play as heirs, etc.).

This is the "Excalibur" phase, or the Fall of Constantinople. Dark, heroic and tragic - especially because the players now care about the world and its characters.


Other loose ideas [will add as they come]:

- In tourneys, it is expect that opponents yield before serious injury. Some opponents will fight to the death. Sometimes, the PCs must choose if they'll spare an opponent. There WILL be accidents. There will be people looking for vengeance even when the rules were followed.

- These would need tracking dozens of NPCs, multiple fiefs, several years. Not sure me and my players are up to the task.

- Religion, family, friends, oaths, debts, can all add layers of "Mixed Allegiances".

- To keep PCs close, they might be all from a similar region that is specially ruined on act I, so they can grow and conquer it from usurpers etc. 

- Castle of Dread: a haunted castle, created by a mad king/baron, mostly abandoned. The home of gothic horror, but not necessarily supernatural: could be a haunted, swampy land with no intrinsic value except as a "safe" haven in time of great need. think Harrenhal, Gormenghast, etc. gothic themes that do not involve monsters are: "cursed" families, oppressive nature, insanity, etc.

- I'm a bit tired of fantasy, but maybe I could check Cthulhu Dark Ages (currently on sale) for a twist on act III? These guys are the real invaders...

- I like House of the Dragon (even if I'm not a fan of the book), so maybe set Act III there would be nice. This is pretty good as all my players are fans of GoT and would immediately recognize names such as "Lannister", "Stark", etc. Of course, messing with "canon" has its own difficulties. Aeny's reign is interesting too. Let me know if you know other good settings/periods!

Anyway... could be fun.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Adding a new dimension to D&D weapons

D&D weapons have many different traits, depending on the edition. Usually, damage is the most noticeable. If I give my players a list of weapons, they'll usually pick the most damaging weapon they can carry.

But there is also price, weight, and in some editions speed, effectives versus armor, length, size, and different effects due to weapon proficiencies.

There is ONE dimensional that is sorely lacking since OD&D, however: an attack bonus.

In chainmail, weapons cause the same damage, but the to-hit chance is different depending on the weapon and armor. This is NOT simply an effect of armor: some weapons are just better to-hit overall.

For example, giving B/X battleaxes a +2 to hit would be very easy. They'd become better than swords against plate and shield, but still worse in most circumstances. Maybe 2h-swords deserve a +1 to-hit to compensate the "slow" aspect (if you're using that at all). Maybe maces deserve a +1 bonus (and make them weight a bit more than short swords). Etc.

What about unarmed attacks? They could cause 1, 1d2 or 1d3 damage... But it would be just as easy to give them a -2 penalty to-hit. Now attacking a foe in plate with bare hands is very ineffective.

[Notice that, because of how AC works, the bonus would be greater for armor-defeating weapons; these are usually heavy, unbalanced... In short, this is the opposite of speed.]

You could scatter high-quality and low-quality weapons by giving them -1 and +1 to-hit... without altering damage output significantly (probably less than 20%, or a smaller difference than 1d6 to 1d8 damage).

There is almost no effect on game balance.

This is probably the simplest addition you can make to B/X weapons. 

You don't need special rules or subsystems, and you probably can write your attack bonus (if you're using that) with your weapon - which already includes Strength/Dexterity and class bonuses. E.g.: "Dagger +3 [1d4+1], Polearm +6 [1d10+1]".

Unfortunately, the "+1 magic weapon" idea is too strong in D&D; it is expected that weapons only give you bonuses to hit if they are magical (it would be a good idea to mix things up here too: a magical weapon with +2 to-hit and +4 damage, for example, something 5e has embraced).

But giving ordinary weapons discreet bonus/penalties to-hit would already add an entire new dimension to your arsenal.

This is just a random idea for now; but if I ever had to add weapon details to my "minimalist B/X", this is where I would start.

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Cyclic history (I) - The sword & sorcery paradigm of civilization downfall

“Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.” ― Robert E. Howard

There are two popular conceptions of history that I see everyday: I'll call them "progressive " and "conservative", but feel free to correct me if you know better terms. 

"Progressive history" believes society advances (if irregularly), somewhat like technology. There are ups and downs, but there is also a right path to march forward, and those who fail to see that are barbarians "on the wrong side of History". 

"Conservative history" believes History is not a march forward, but a series movements bringing us closer or farther from some center (usually created by a deity). Tradition should be handled with care, and those who fail to see that are degenerates and heretics.

Another possibility is "Regressive history", the belief that everything was better in ancient times. There is some of that in Hinduism, Taoism and the Garden of Eden, but it is not a common perspective of history nowadays. People often see their youth as the golden years, but the medieval period as "the dark ages".

The sword & sorcery paradigm of civilization downfall, found in the writings of Howard, Lovecraft and Moorcock, tells a different story...

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents... some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new Dark Age.”
― H.P. Lovecraft

“Barbarianism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is the whim of circumstance. And barbarianism must ultimately triumph”
― Robert E. Howard

Within this paradigm, history is cyclical (this is also a theme in Hinduism and Plato, as far as I know.) Cultures go from barbarianism to civilization, but civilization becomes decadent until it destroys itself, returning to barbarianism. 

We could divide this in five stages, as exemplified by Conan characters: savage (e.g., the Picts), barbarian (e.g., Conan and the Cimmerians), civilized (e.g., Aquilonia), decadent (e.g., Stygia) and ruined (extinct societies like Lemuria and Atlantis). I think I read the idea in some old version of RuneQuest first, but it is common in many RPGs.

(Note: it is also possible to have utopia as an alternative to the kinds of societies delineated above - e.g., Satya Yuga, the Garden of Eden, Avalon, etc. This is uncommon in S&S settings; they appears mostly as mythical, distant or extinct places, such as the original home of Yag-Kosha. A PC or even NPC from such origin should be very rare).

Howard seems to favor barbarianism, as mentioned above, but maybe this is because he's telling so many stories from the barbarian point of view (even Conan eventually becomes king of Aquilonia, in a way choosing civilization over barbarianism). 

I prefer to look at it in a cyclical manner: barbarianism will often "ascend" to civilization, but civilization plants the seed of its own destruction

(The Lovecraft quote also explains why: knowledge is dangerous, and too much progress will bring us back to "dark ages". The idea that knowledge/power brings madness/corruption is also common in S&S and dark fantasy in general.)

This is an important point, because it's easy for us to see civilization as the epitome of society. When we think of it in terms of cycles, we can see any position is relative. Each society judges itself superior to others, and see other societies in comparison with their own. Conan sees civilized folks as degenerate already, while someone from a decadent civilization (say, Moorcock's Melniboné) would see Aquilonians (or "the young kingdoms") as ignorant barbarians.

On the other hand, an individual can see its own culture with critical eyes. For example,  you might belong to a decadent culture and denounce its excesses publically. This might turn you into an outcast or pariah.

In addition, cultures are not monolithic. You could have a culture where the elites are incredibly decadent but the poor still try to maintain some decency, for example, or vice-versa. Different groups could exist in the same nation or city. Rulers can preach morals despite living decadent lives, or conversely they can breed corruption in the population while maintaining civilized lives themselves.

Once you break free of this "barbarian is better" or " civilization is better" paradigm, things becomes much more interesting. Instead of good against evil or Law against Chaos, you get meaningful choices and shades of gray. A PC could come from any kind of society (although PCs from savage and ruined ones will be rarer), with pros and cons. 

And we could reflect on demographics, laws, customs, magic and science in each kind of society, for easy and fun world building... 

Which I plan to do soon.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

The minimalist beauty of D&D's "Dragon Quest Game"

First, notice there are several products with similar names; in this post, I'm talking about Dungeons & Dragons: Dragon Quest Game.

Contents: "32 page rule book, 24 page adventure book, 4 page booklet, fold-out game board, 4 sheets of cardstock fold-up figures, 6 plastic minis, 6 metal minis, 7 dice, 180 cards" (source).

This is not a "proper" RPG, but a board game for children 10-12 years old who never played D&D.

Still, I found the game immensely fun - despite being "too old" for it and playing GURPS regularly at the time!

And I introduced quite a few people to RPGs with it. I wish I still had a copy to try with children and newcomers.

Today, after being hit by nostalgia out of nowhere, I went online to take another look at the game.

It is apparently less famous than I thought - I found few reviews and it doesn't seem easy to buy.

Anyway, this games is probably lacking as a board game or RPG - the rules are vague, incomplete, and apparently unbalanced. We probably made it work due to experience with other RPGs. 


I have to admire the sweet minimalism of the game.

The rules book has 32 pages, and is full of beautiful TSR art. 

The actual rules are very lean: almost everything is basically "roll under your ability score" (the usual six abilities).

Dwarves can find secret doors rolling under Wis. Halflings hide and thieves deal with traps rolling under Dex. Elves are just wizards with better fighting.

There are no saving throws - a PC affect by poison must roll under Constitution or die, etc.

THAC0 is replaced by a "fighting score", basically 20-level. So a 3rd level MU has a fighting score of 17 - which is better than most versions of D&D, but he can only use small weapons.

Spells do not have levels. You just pick a number of spells equal to your level plus Int or Wis mod. Magic-users pick before elves. I love this scheme.

No XP either - surviving a dungeon (which isn't easy) gives you a level, period.

There are no HD, just HP (6 per level for clerics, etc.).


Treasure and encumbrance are abstracted - each PC can carry two cards (except backpacks allow you to carry more stuff), some treasure cards can be traded by equipment, etc.

Random encounters are drawn from a deck of cards, prepared beforehand for each dungeon.

The cards might be the best thing about this game - full of (not always appropriate) TSR art, they are much better than the 5e versions!

It also had plastic/metal PCs and paper figures for monsters and doors, and a single board that could be slightly adapted for different dungeons.

While I prefer "theater of the mind" RPGs, all these components were great for introducing people to the hobby, and fun to play with.

Lots of interesting ideas that could be applied to ANY version of D&D are scattered through the game: for example, the reaction table takes into account that lawful creatures are more likely to be helpful (which makes more sense here since PCs are never chaotic).

There are a few missed opportunities for balance and fun. Some treasure cards could have different effects (e.g., trade for TWO equipment cards), plate armor (or additional items) could affect movement, etc. The special card are just random luck (nothing the player or PC can do except hope for a good result), and Charisma apparently serves no function in the game.

This game is introductory and always errs on the side of simplicity.

The adventure book has three dungeons and advice to build your own - and even blank cards for the DM to fill!

It also contains some horrible DM advice (e.g., fudge your rolls, ignore random encounters occasionally, and so on).

All things considered, this was a fun introductory game. 

It was released in 1992, but contained ideas that would come back in 3e, 4e and 5e (e.g., everyone has a similar fighting bonus, saves rely on abilities) and even OSR games such as TAAC and The Black Hack (almost everything is "roll under ability").

It makes me wonder if someone could have started with this game and then moved to D&D... only to realize THAC0 charts, percentile thief skills and saving throws did little to improve the game!

Despite being incomplete and not that balanced, I think this is a fun little game - and a bit ahead of its time in many aspects.

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Monday, October 09, 2023

Old School "Tiers of play"

The idea of "tiers of play" is popular in 5th edition circles. The 5e DMG describes the following tiers:

* Levels 1-4 - Local heroes.
* Levels 5-10 - Heroes of the Realm. 
* Levels 11-17 - Masters of the Realm. 
* Levels 17-20 - Masters of the World.

The main criteria is spells; level 3, 6, and 9 spells are acquired in each tier beyond the first. These are significant steps, as the difference between levels 2 and 3 is smaller than level 3 and 4 (or at least that is the idea). Fighters get extra attacks at similar points, which is a good idea.

In old school play, there are multiple distinctions: "basic", "expert", "name level", "master", immortal", etc. There are differences between OD&D, Basic and AD&D. But overall, I think you could say that:

* Levels 1-3 are for "basic" heroes (1-3 is included in Holmes, B/X). They explore dungeons. Wilderness is too dangerous for now...

* Levels 4-8 are for "expert" heroes - wilderness explorers. Everyone has enough HP to be almost impervious to a single-hit kill from a soldier with a sword. Mages get fireball on level 5. AD&D gives extra attacks for Fighters/Warriors by this tier. Thieves get read languages.

* Levels 9-14 are for "conquerors" - domain management. Most classes gets baronies, followers, build towers, etc., at this point. Epic spells are acquired (raise dead in BECMI, teleport). Fewer HP per level (but more HP per XP). B/X stops at 14th.

Levels 15 + - are for "advanced" heroes (or "companion" rules). These guys are legends. You eventually get 9th-level earth-shattering spells such as "Wish". You can go up to 36 and beyond with BECMI but I find this unnecessary and redundant. In any case, the sky is the limit - you might become a demi-god.

As I mentioned in the link above, the maximum number of levels is purely arbitrary.

My own games usually stop at level 10 and I don't go into domain management often anyway. Dark Fantasy Basic stops at level 10, for example (avoiding the wonky HP progression mentioned above), but has some notes on going to level 36.

However, using 20 levels fits very well with the d20. And counting in fives is intuitive, so I like to think of levels 5, 10, and 15 for each tier "advancement".

Thursday, October 05, 2023

Point-buy D&D (OSR)

I have played point-buy systems for decades. 

In some of these systems, you choose your abilities scores, powers, perks, etc. by spending a limited amount of points - instead of rolling dice and picking a class.

Point-buy mechanics are not uncommon in D&D; even in OD&D (IIRC) you could reduce one ability score to improve another. Later on, you had proficiencies to choose. 

In modern D&D, you get to pick your ability scores (and sometimes skills) with points too.

The best thing about this is that you can customize your character however you like

Do you want a spell-less ranger, nature paladin, witcher, white mage, etc.? Easy to do without multiclassing rules.

In systems like Runequest or Savage Worlds, you don't even need classes; you just create the character you imagine.

The main problem, of course, is analysis paralysis.

[Another downside is that all PCs of the same class become "optimal" and "samey" if you don't introduce some randomness].

Too much choice becomes burdensome. At the very least, you'd need a few examples or templates to help players out, unless they are familiar with the system (with that said, I played such systems for decades without much issue).

Anyway, I have often wondered if old school D&D could be easily reduced to a point buy system - probably after playing Lamentations of the Flame Princess, which uses a similar system for skills.

by James West.

Ideally, we'd have a number of things to "buy" with a similar cost. 

Let's start with 3 points per level (maybe 5 on level 1). You can assign them to (no more than one point per level to the same ability/skill/etc.):

- Attack bonus.
- Saves (bonus apply to all saves).
- Ability scores improvements

- Skills (1-in-6 otherwise).
- Spells (1 point per spell).
- Spell-casting.
- Turn undead.
- Feats/features.

Some entries deserve special consideration.

Attack bonus probably requires at least 1/3 of your current level, to keep in line with old-school mages.

Saves are the same (no matter if using a single save or more than one).

Ability scores improvements enhance your abilities, no matter how you define them in the first place (3d6 in order, standard array, etc.). To balance things out, I'd probably use WotC modifiers, i.e., +1 for 12-13, +2 for 14-15, +3 for 16-17, etc.

Skills replace thief skills but also ranger stuff (forage, hunt, directions). Everyone starts with a 1-in-6 chance, it becomes 2-in-6 by spending a point etc. 6-in-6 means you roll 2d6 and only fail if both dice get 6 (which means about 97% chance of success).

I'd reduce thief skills to five or six (see below).

Spell-casting means your MU level. Spellcasting 3 means you cast as a 3rd level MU. You still have to learn the spells, and you probably need at least the same number as you spellcasting (e.g., at least 3 spells for spellcasting 3).

To Turn Undead you roll 1d6 and must beat the target's HD by 4 or more. TU 2 means you roll 1d6+2, etc. A margin of 8 or more means destruction.

Feats are various perks, including all existing features. Some of them could cost more than 1 point (e.g., multiple attacks) and they might be limited (e.g., one for every three levels) to reduce complexity. You can find many examples in Old School Feats - they'd cost 2 points each.

Let's try to create a character - say, a 6th level thief, with 20 points - that will feel similar to the original version.

- Attack bonus: +3.
- Saves: +3.
- Skills: +12 (3-in-6 for six skills).
- Feats: +2 (backstab or read languages).

This is pretty close to B/X. 

What about a fighter?

- Attack bonus: +6.
- Saves: +6.
- Ability scores: +4 CON (for the extra HP).
- 4 extra points to spend as needed - probably a feat giving him an extra attack.

Eh, not perfect. The attack bonus is closer to AD&D than B/X, but I like the AD&D progression better anyway.


- Attack bonus: +3.
- Saves: +3.
- TU: +6.
- Spell-casting: 4.
- Spells: 4.

If the cleric has some taboos, he might get an extra point or two, but his budget is pretty tight.


- Attack bonus: +2.
- Saves: +2.
- Spell-casting: 6.
- Spells: 6.
- 4 extra points to spend as needed.

I like it. Maybe the MU can get some Lore skill, etc. 

The fact that the MU becomes stronger at lower levels and weaker at higher levels (fewer spells) is a fortunate consequence of this system.

Notice that this assumes no classes - so, same XP for everybody. Also, same HP - unless you get a CON bonus, etc.

This means the MU needs some nerfing.

The fighter loses some unique skills (wearing all weapons and armor - unless you want to count those as feats or, conversely, taboos), but gains more points to spend on abilities and features.

The cleric will be fine. It is powerful enough already.

The thief will probably need to specialize in three or four skills (and maybe they can be reduced to find, notice, climb, tinker, and stealth; with other skills such as lore, healing and nature added to other classes).

Overall... I think this is doable. 

This allows you to create a paladin or ranger (just add a nature skill) with relative ease, and to customize your own character/class.

"Racial" features can be bought by level 1, with humans getting extra points to spend.

Come to think of it, this could be the basis for an updated version of Old School Feats someday. Or an entirely new thing...

EDIT: Just found out this is a thing in AD&D 2e. The 2e DMG has a class-creation system, which is not quite I'm doing here, but  Skills and Powers contains an actual point buy system that is much harder, but still very cool. This from that books description:

About Point-Based Characters. The idea of point-based RPG characters dates back to at least Melee (1977), the predecessor to The Fantasy Trip (1980). It was popularized by Champions (1981) and has since become a mainstay of the roleplaying industry.

However, even in 1995, the idea still hadn't been officially incorporated into AD&D, which instead focused on random rolls to generate characteristics, linked with rigid class and level structures that didn't give players any room for variance in their characters. The closest that AD&D came to point-based characters was in Unearthed Arcana (1985), which offered some alternative methods for rolling lots of characteristic dice to try and generate a specific character class that the player was seeking. AD&D second edition (1989) similarly provided some methods to let players add extra dice to certain characteristics during character generation.

Skills & Powers dramatically changed this by offering a point-buy system that let players not only purchase characteristic points and proficiencies, but also allowed them to choose which class abilities that they wanted to buy. It allowed considerable variation, and thus players could have characters with "out-of-class" weapons, or even a Conan-esque fighter who could both fight and move silently. Skills & Powers even included traits (advantages) and disadvantages - two notable elements of point-based character systems that help to add detail and depth to characters.

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